The Chicago White Sox were on their way to a 101-loss season in mid-September when manager Pedro Grifol told reporters he was confident they would contend in 2024.
It seemed like a bit of a stretch, so I asked Grifol why he thought that would be a realistic possibility.
“Why wouldn’t we?” he asked. “Why wouldn’t we be able to?”
The Sox’s record suggested it would not be a quick fix, I replied, and history tells us it takes time to turn around a team that has played as poorly as the 2023 Sox.
But Grifol countered he had read something that contradicted my theory.
“There is a pretty good percentage of teams that can turn it around in one year,” he said. “And so obviously it depends on what we do this offseason. I’m pretty confident that we can.”
Grifol didn’t have the report handy, but no matter. Now he doesn’t have to bother looking for examples of a one-year turnaround.
The Texas Rangers proved him right Wednesday, going from 94 losses in 2022 to their first World Series championship only one year later. How did they do it? And can the Sox follow their lead?
Many factors led to the Rangers’ title, including hiring Hall of Fame-bound manager Bruce Bochy. The Sox tried that route with Tony La Russa in 2020 but regressed after one playoff season in 2022, and he retired for a second time for health reasons.
Spending a ton of money also contributed to the title, beginning with Corey Seager and Marcus Semien in 2022 and adding starters Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi last winter. While deGrom was injured early and didn’t pan out, the Rangers acquired Jordan Montgomery and Max Scherzer for the stretch run and postseason.
Anyone expecting the Sox to start spending madly, like 82-year-old Rangers owner Ray Davis did, is certified crazy. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t mince words when he telegraphed the Sox’s offseason plans in September.
“Look, we’re not going to be in the (Shohei) Ohtani race, I’ll tell you that right now,” he said. “And we’re not going to sign pitchers to 10-year deals. But we’re going to try to get better, and that means trades, it potentially means signing free agents, it means playing smarter baseball.”
Reinsdorf, who turns 88 in February, is not going to sell the team or change his philosophy on spending any time soon, no matter the correlation of spending and winning. He surely would point out the Rangers spent all that money and still only got into the playoffs as a wild-card team, which is easier than ever with the expanded postseason.
The Rangers weren’t a world-beater during the season but distinguished themselves in October with sweeps over the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles before eking out a seven-game American League Championship Series against the defending champion Houston Astros. They had the good fortune of facing an Arizona Diamondbacks team in the World Series that was running on fumes with only two bona fide starters.
Every team needs a little luck in the postseason. But the Rangers earned their championship thanks to big-time players such as Seager, Eovaldi and Adolis García, who was perhaps the biggest winner of the postseason.
But back to the Sox. Can they emulate the Rangers?
Imagine Luis Robert Jr. as the Sox’s answer to Garcia in the 2024 postseason, with Dylan Cease pulling an Eovaldi and Tim Anderson replicating Seager.
No? Can’t blame you.
But the Sox do have a building block in Robert and he showed he has MVP potential, staying consistent the entire season despite the team’s losing ways. That’s a start. Figuring out who deserves to stay — and who needs to go — is what will make Chris Getz’s first offseason as general manager so interesting.
Getz already deserves plaudits for one of his first front-office hires in assistant general manager Josh Barfield, who was Mike Hazen’s assistant GM in Arizona. Barfield was part of building a young Diamondbacks team of overachievers that shocked everyone by getting into the World Series.
The Diamondbacks Way seems like a more likely game plan for the Sox to copy. They have a young core in Robert, Andrew Vaughn and Eloy Jiménez — then a lot of question marks after that. Getz needs to decide soon what to do with options on Tim Anderson, Mike Clevinger, Liam Hendriks and others while finding out the trade market for Cease, Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Michael Kopech and the rest.
Getz’s toughest decision is also the easiest on paper — declining Anderson’s $14 million option after his career-worst season. The possibility of Anderson turning it around elsewhere is realistic; the chances of him doing it in Chicago appear slim. If anyone looked like he wanted a fresh chance to become the Cody Bellinger of 2024, it’s Anderson.
Clevinger’s $12 million mutual option poses real risks, but the Sox should pay the $4 million buyout and not look back even though he was their best starter at 9-9 with a 3.77 ERA. No one was interested when the Sox put Clevinger on waivers, so picking up the option and thinking they could deal him seems far-fetched.
Getz’s easiest decision might also one of the toughest: Hendriks, who overcame non-Hodgkin lymphoma and made a brief but admirable comeback attempt. Declining Hendriks’ mutual $15 million option makes perfect sense because the closer won’t be available for most, if not all, of 2024 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Hendriks gets the money either way. He would be paid $15 million if the team picks up the option or get it deferred over a 10-year period if the Sox decline. You can do the Sox math on that one. Hendriks could sign a low-salary deal to return, though many teams likely would take that flier based on his track record and personality.
The unofficial start of the offseason begins next week in Arizona at the GM meetings, where Getz will no doubt be a busy guy.
The 2023 season might have been a disaster for the Sox, but the Rangers showed the world that things can change on a dime.